By Mikhail


2013-01-16 11:56:20 8 Comments

In Russian we have idiom/saying "To shoot out of cannon into sparrows" (literal translation) which is used to convey an idea of applying too drastic measures to small problems. I believe there should be some native-English equivalents to this saying. Can you share if there are any?

10 comments

@user14070 2013-01-17 20:41:14

@Beta 2013-01-18 03:03:12

But... in that it wasn't excessive.

@user14070 2013-01-18 14:16:48

@Beta true enough...

@John Lawler 2013-01-16 18:24:16

I once used the phrase built a cannon to kill a fly in a paper, referring to the complexity of the "Commercial Exchange" semantic frame that is required in order to understand the meaning of the word money.

@Ilmari Karonen 2013-01-16 17:21:17

As AJ Henderson notes in the comments, there are several common variants of "attacking some small creatures with a large and unwieldy weapon" in use, and I doubt most English-speakers would bat an eye at "shooting sparrows with a cannon."

That said, in my experience, flies do seem to be a more common target in English than sparrows, while the most popular weapons seem to be either cannons or, for a more personal type of combat, sledgehammers. So I'd most likely go for either:

  • "shooting flies with a cannon," or

  • "swatting flies with a sledgehammer."

But if you'd prefer to target sparrows instead of flies, please do. Such little departures from the most heavily trodden path will simply give your writing that little bit of extra flavor.

@tchrist 2013-01-16 12:04:58

“Never use a shotgun when a flyswatter will do.”

@Robusto 2013-01-16 12:25:47

As Robert Heinlein put it,

You don't spank a baby with an axe.

@Jon Hanna 2013-01-16 12:33:31

-1 because I don't think it's a common idiom, but +1 because it's a great Heinlein quote!

@RegDwigнt 2013-01-16 12:01:32

Two idioms would be:

  • To crack a nut with a sledgehammer.
  • To break a (butter)fly on the wheel.

The wheel in question being a device for capital punishment of humans. So using it on a tiny fly would, quite literally, be overkill and it is also not clear if you would actually hit the fly at all or if it would be able to get away swiftly — a connotation it has in common with the Russian idiom you are translating.

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@Beta 2013-01-16 15:37:42

I think "breaking a butterfly on the wheel" is from Alexander Pope. My impression is that it means not just unnecessary effort, but excessive rage and vindictiveness against a basically harmless little annoyance (and maybe a beautiful and innocent one).

@user14070 2013-01-17 20:43:19

Just saw the "breaking a butterfly on the wheel" today in an article regarding U.S. Federal Prosecutors.

@drobson 2013-01-16 13:49:16

Heavy-handed is one that can be applied to a lot of different situations. Also "make a mountain out of a molehill" is a good one.

@RegDwigнt 2013-01-16 14:39:22

"Making a mountain out of a molehill" is something different entirely. It fact it exists in Russian, too, and has nothing to do with the idiom in question.

@LarsH 2013-01-16 18:17:42

@RegDwighт: The two idioms are quite different, but I wouldn't agree that they have nothing to do with each other.

@Izkata 2013-01-16 22:05:21

@LarsH To "make a mountain out of a molehill" is to imagine a problem as larger than it is. The question is about using a tool inappropriate (and sometimes overkill) for the job at hand. There's only a tiiiny bit of overlap - it's borderline unrelated.

@Mikhail 2013-01-17 11:20:52

Russian version of "Making a mountain out of a molehill" if translated literally sounds "don't make an elephant out of fly"

@Alex Feinman 2013-01-16 14:05:14

One American variant, "kill a mosquito with a bazooka".

@Kristopher Johnson 2013-01-23 16:39:55

Also: Using an elephant gun to kill a gnat.

@MGP 2013-03-15 12:59:54

In spanish we say something very similar "Don't use a cannon to kill a mosquito" I think this is traced to Confucio. quoteworld.org/quotes/3150

@Jon Hanna 2013-01-16 12:04:51

Overkill is originally a military analysis term from the Cold War, referring to the fact that the belligerents each had far more nuclear weapons than they would need to completely destroy the other. These days it's generally used metaphorically to mean precisely the sort of excessive effort or excessive means you talk of.

Bring a gun to a knife-fight is another that comes from combat originally.

@Kheldar 2013-01-16 14:06:14

Bring a knife to a gunfight was the way I knew it...

@Yamikuronue 2013-01-16 14:57:19

@Kheldar But isn't that the opposite?

@Jon Hanna 2013-01-16 15:04:53

@Kheldar both are found, with clearly opposite meanings - of being under-prepared and hence in danger, or over-prepared and hence escalating things. Your version is more common, with this being by analogy.

@Kheldar 2013-01-16 15:39:08

Yes, indeed with the opposite meaning, I did not know the other existed.

@kojiro 2013-01-16 19:08:35

I had heard it as Don't bring a knife to a gunfight, but that particular phrase suffers from a lack of just. Nothing wrong with having a knife at a gunfight, as long as you have a gun, too. Also, as anyone who has been in close-quarters combat will tell you, having just a gun at a knife fight is not overkill, it is ineffective.

@Jon Hanna 2013-01-16 19:51:41

@kojiro I have heard it said that knives can beat guns in the hands of trained opponents at very close quarters. Not being so-trained, and having never had to use any weapon more advanced than a fist or a forehead, I'm quite happy not knowing whether or not the analogy matches reality well or not :)

@Barrie England 2013-01-16 11:57:23

We speak of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

@AJ Henderson 2013-01-16 14:12:37

Interesting, I've never heard that one in America. The ones I've heard are always much closer to the original question.

@us2012 2013-01-16 14:30:12

I'm wondering whether there may be a small difference in meaning though: A sledgehammer is likely to crack a nut, a gun is likely to be useful at a knife fight. But cannons are unlikely to hit a sparrow. What if we want to convey that the tools applied are not only overkill but also ill-suited for the task?

@Mitch 2013-01-16 14:32:52

@us2012: is that the connotation of the original phrase, inappropriate? "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"?

@us2012 2013-01-16 14:38:39

@Mitch: You would have to ask Mikhail about the connotations in Russian. The phrase exists in German, too, and I have been under the impression that it usually includes that connotation there.

@Jon Hanna 2013-01-16 14:48:45

@us2012 a cannon loaded with canister shot would have a good chance of taking out the sparrow.

@Hendrik Vogt 2013-01-16 15:16:16

@us2012: In German, the connotation is just "overkill".

@Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight 2013-01-16 15:25:22

I don't think I've ever heard the sledge hammer-nut one (and as I kid, did use a baby sledge on hickory nuts occasionally). Instead I'd use "using a sledgehammer to crack an egg", or "nuclear fly swatter" depending on how hyperbolic I wanted to be.

@Kheldar 2013-01-16 15:40:40

Surcouf once loaded his guns with gold coins. That definitely works against British troops, so it probably works against sparrows.

@Briguy37 2013-01-16 15:42:14

I haven't heard this one in America either, but I've heard the similar phrase "killing a fly with a sledgehammer" a number of times.

@Izkata 2013-01-16 22:03:29

I've heard variations of this one tons of times in the US. Usually it's not written like this, though - it's more like "Hammer, meet peanut".

@Mikhail 2013-02-13 06:56:38

"Surcouf once loaded his guns with gold coins." Can somebody provide details on this or where to read about it? Sounds interesting...

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